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Archive 15

Spiritual successor to BMW's well-respected 1602/2002
sports saloons of the 1960s/70s, the latest 3-Series
models continue the company's tradition of providing
family motoring in a dynamic, attractive package which
is rewarding to drive as well as practical to live with.

The most recent 3-Series cars bear visual similarities to their immediate predecessors, but have been completely redesigned. Just slightly larger in external dimensions, the latest models offer improved interior space, while a longer wheelbase and wider track contribute to greater stability. The body shell is torsionally stiffer, and this, combined with optimum front/rear weight distribution of 50/50 and rear-wheel-drive, is intended to impart safe handling and a 'solid' feel.
   The new cars feature a host of electronic aids to enhance safety and dynamic performance, including anti-lock brakes, Automatic Stability Control with Traction and Cornering Braking Control to correct excessive oversteering/sliding when cornering 'on the limit'.     Further safety features include six airbags (driver, passenger, front door side units, plus side head airbags), height-adjustable seat belts, belt latch tensioners and belt force limiters.
    Aluminium suspension components are employed to reduce unsprung weight and improve ride quality. Power-assisted steering is also standard equipment across the range.
   BMW take very seriously the security of their vehicles; so it is worth noting that the 3-Series recently won the Upper Medium Class in this year's tough and highly respected British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association Security Awards.

   Buyers of the new models can choose between a 118 bhp, 1.9-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine (318i), with balancer shafts to enhance smoothness and cut noise, or two six-cylinder petrol units (2.3-litre, 323i or 2.8-litre, 328i), both of which benefit from infinitely variable valve timing to provide greater torque output at low engine speeds as well as more flexible and useable performance in real life road conditions.
   Diesel aficionados will (from the summer) be able to opt for the 320d, with an all-new 136 bhp two litre direct injection power unit, which produces a thumping 206 lb-ft. of torque at just 1,750 rpm and with which around 50 mpg should be achievable in everyday use. A four cylinder 316i will also be available soon.
   Service intervals have been extended for reduced long-term running costs, and the signs are that the low depreciation rates of the previous 3-Series models will be repeated with the new cars, so that eventual trade-in values will be relatively high.
   Our test car was a 318i, in 'SE' guise. In addition to the comprehensive standard specification for all 3-Series versions (incorporating, for example, a remote control alarm system, immobiliser, electrically operated front windows, stereo system - pre-wired for a CD player, and a host of other items), the 318I SE featured 15 inch aluminium alloy wheels, automatic air conditioning (or alternatively, an electrically operated glass sun roof), an automatically dimming rear view mirror, front fog lamps, a front centre arm rest, and heated washer jets/exterior mirrors, are all standard.
Options include an on-board trip computer and a satellite navigation system with visual and audio prompts.

   Nice touches seldom encountered these days include the provision of a toolkit and a rechargeable torch.
   Leg room is generous throughout (although tall passengers would have preferred a little more headroom in the rear) and the seats, although comparatively firm, proved to be far more comfortable on long trips than first acquaintance would suggest. In addition, the car's inherently good ride quality meant that the cabin was well-insulated from road shocks. Our test car was also a quiet, refined performer - at all speeds - making for relaxing travel for all occupants. On long journeys at night, rear seat passengers appreciated the additional interior lights, built into the rear quarter panels; these lamps did not distract the driver!
   Although the boot opening is not huge, the compartment itself is long, wide and fairly deep, enabling holiday luggage to be swallowed with relative ease.
   It is out on the open road where the new 3-Series really excels. The engine is lively and a willing performer and high cruising speeds are soon attained. For the record, BMW figures show a nought to 62 mph acceleration time of just 10.4 seconds with a top speed of some 128 mph. However, the bare figures alone cannot convey the manner in which this car performs, for it is truly a joy to drive. This is helped by the delightfully smooth, slick-changing five-speed manual gearbox, although automatic transmissions is available as an option.

   The engine pulls strongly at all speeds and is quite happy in town use at low rpm. When optimum acceleration is required, changing down a cog brings instant and eager acceleration, and a slightly louder, yet still subdued purr from under the bonnet is the only indication that the motor is working hard.
   Most drivers should see better than 35 miles per gallon when touring; indeed the trip computer on our test vehicle showed an average of nearer 37 mpg during one 140 mile trip from south Dorset to north Somerset and back again, taking in minor lanes and villages, as well as main roads.
   I felt that the car's ride quality, steering and braking characteristics were exemplary for a sports saloon; it goes where it is pointed, with ease and without fuss. The 'chassis' design is accommodating of road surface imperfections without being too soft, and a safe feel is imparted to the driver and passengers alike, even on the tortuously twisty roads encountered in this part of the world. The car's poise and adhesion through a series of fast curves has to be experienced to be truly appreciated; simply first class.    For those who are interested in what goes on under the bonnet, the in-line engine/gearbox and rear wheel drive layout means that there is plenty of space around the power unit, and access space for routine checks is far more generous than in most modern cars.    To sum up, we were highly impressed by the latest version of the 3-Series. The 318i tested proved to be a thoroughly competent machine in virtually every respect, and I found it genuinely fun to drive, both in town and on the open road. Quibbles? Visibility to the rear is restricted (due to the car's high rear quarters) and perhaps the interior treatment could look more opulent, but these are minor points in relation to the overall excellence of the vehicle.
   But how much does it cost? The 318i costs 19,745; the SE version, 21,045. Our SE test car was equipped with the optional computer and navigation system, together costing an additional 1,650 (the computer alone is priced at 250). If you prefer six cylinders, the 323I SE will set you back 24,745; the 328I SE, 28,145 (all these figures are 'on the road' prices).  

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